This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on 8 March 16, 2009. Partner content is not updated.
How to Fight the Gangs
"A crisis is a terrible thing to waste," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last Thursday, as he stood in a Burnaby, B.C., maintenance shed to announce $350 million in federal support for a suburban extension to the Lower Mainland's rapid transit system. While the morning's theme was economic stimulus, he confronted a different crisis that afternoon: a plague of gang war and youth crime waged on the streets of Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley - and in communities across the country.
In February alone, there were some 19 shootings in the Lower Mainland, eight deaths and a mounting fear that authorities were powerless to stop the anarchy. And with good reason. In 1997 there were 28 gang-related murders in Canada. By 2007 that climbed to 117. One of every five people killed in Canada is now the victim of a gang hit. While B.C. has the current political spotlight, it accounted for just 20 per cent of gang murders in 2007. One of every four gang killings, in fact, happened in Ontario. Where there is progress, even that is a mixed blessing. Twelve years ago, Quebec accounted for a staggering 61 per cent of the nation's gang murders. By 2007 its share was down to 19 per cent, not because Quebec is more peaceful, but because gangs in other provinces are more violent.
The impact of gang warfare is shot through the statistics in this, the second annual national crime rankings, as compiled by Maclean's with Statistics Canada's data. StatsCan reports the crime rate hit its lowest point in 30 years in 2007. That good news is tempered by the intractable problem of violent youth crime - on the rise since the mid-1980s, and a troubling entry point into gang life. Although the level is unchanged from 2006, it is double the rate of 20 years ago. The homicide rate by minors dropped, but it remains the second-highest since 1961.
On the day his justice minister, Rob Nicholson, tabled in Ottawa the first of a series of proposed laws to hike penalties and impose mandatory minimum sentences for gun, gang and drug crimes, Harper convened in Vancouver a closed-door meeting of regional police chiefs, and the families of the victims of gang mayhem. To his left sat Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu and to his right was Eileen Mohan, whose 22-year-old son Chris was one of two innocent witnesses killed in a gang massacre that claimed six lives in a suburban Surrey apartment block during a previous wave of violence in 2007. Harper looked around the table at the 15 or so in attendance. I'll give you each four minutes, he said, tell me one thing the government can do to help.
There were calls for more resources, for tougher sentences for prolific offenders and programs to keep vulnerable youth out of the clutches of gangs. But all of Harper's measures so far, which he concedes are a first step, are predicated on punishing those who get caught - an all too infrequent occurrence. Solving the crisis will take more than adding a few pages to a bloated Criminal Code, and firing off drive-by comments on the "soft-on-crime policies" of his political opponents. It's not just bleeding hearts who say that, but overwhelmed local politicians, crime analysts and street-hardened cops.
Gangsters across the country are getting away with murder. Three men, two with gang ties, were killed by gunmen who burst into a Calgary Vietnamese restaurant on New Year's Day. No arrests. The six killed 17 months ago were in a neighbouring apartment to the Mohans. No arrests. And just last week, murder charges were withdrawn against two Toronto men accused of a gun slaying last March, after fearful witnesses were unwilling to testify. Abdikarim Abdikarim, 18, was killed and five others were wounded as gunmen opened fire in an apartment lobby. The murder was caught on grainy closed-circuit surveillance tape, later posted by police on YouTube. Without witnesses, even that was deemed insufficient evidence to convict.
Are shooters fixated on sentencing provisions and parole eligibility as they blaze away? Unlikely. More probably they gamble on the slim odds of capture by overworked murder squads, drowning in paperwork and shackled by legal precedents.
Where there is success, the resources required are staggering. Last month, 60 arrests were made as police targeted the middle and upper echelons of a drug distribution ring in Montreal and parts of Ontario. Project Axe was 2½ years in the making and involved 700 police officers from six police forces in Quebec and Ontario. The resulting arrests highlight the frustrating realities of modern-day gangsterism, says Charles Mailloux, a Montreal police inspector with the special investigations unit. The current ring replaced a drug network run by biker gangs until it was blown apart in an earlier police sweep in 2001. "That created a void that was filled by the street gangs," he says.
Harper got a lesson last week on how frustrating and out-of-kilter the legal system has become when it was Abbotsford police Chief Bob Rich's turn to speak. He used his allotted time to describe the Bacon brothers - Jonathan, Jarrod and Jamie - all affiliated with the Red Scorpions, the gang linked to the so-called "Surrey six" murders. Four minutes can't do justice to their story, if justice has anything to do with it.
Rich asked for a change to bail laws for people charged with violent crimes or serious weapons offences. Even measures the Tories instituted last year to toughen bail conditions for some gun offences couldn't hold the Bacons in jail until trial, said Rich. He makes a compelling case. All three brothers are apparently marked for death by the rival United Nations gang. They have survived assassination attempts due to luck, their armoured vests and the work of the very police officers who want them in jail. Some of their associates aren't as fortunate.
Jonathan Bacon, 28, walked free on drug and weapons charges in 2007. A year earlier, he was hit several times in a hail of gunfire outside of his parent's comfortable middle-class home in suburban Abbotsford. He now lives in a condominium in Port Moody - where, shades of the Wild West - police have declared him a public danger, and plastered warning posters around town.
Jamie, 23, and Jarrod, 26, both awaiting trial on weapons and drug offences, live in their parents' home as part of their bail conditions - a court order that has proved a nightmare for the Abbotsford police. Jamie, who was wearing an armoured vest, escaped death in January when his Mercedes sport coupe was riddled with bullets in busy downtown Abbotsford in the middle of the day. Dennis Karbovanec, a friend of the Bacons, survived a shooting last New Year's, arriving at a hospital clad in body armour. He is also free on bail, facing charges including possession of a loaded handgun and a silencer hidden in a secret compartment of his SUV. With such serious charges, asks Rich, why is he on bail? Another associate, Kevin LeClair, was executed in a Langley parking lot last month. Last May, Jonathan Barber, 23, was shot to death while driving a Porsche Cayenne belonging to one of the Bacons, in what police call a case of mistaken identity.
The Bacons have been a priority for Rich, a former deputy chief in Vancouver, since he took the top job in Abbotsford in July. When he drove in a cruiser to the tiny street where the Bacons live, a four-year-old waved from his tricycle. "Aw, freak," he thought, "this is awful." First off, with the neighbours' approval, surveillance cameras were installed on the street. It was a message to gangbangers, says Rich: "If you're going to shoot the Bacons, you're not going to do it on this block." Rich's orders to the department: try anything that works. "If an innocent person dies on our street tomorrow, can we say to ourselves we did everything we could, that we didn't leave an investigative idea or strategy untried?" he says. "I feel like it could happen in a minute."
So most every night the Bacons are virtually put to bed by police, to ensure they're complying with their curfew and other bail conditions. After Jamie Bacon's attempted assassination, police escalated the strategy again. Now two members of the emergency response team sit in a marked cruiser outside the home, and dog the brothers' footsteps around town. Two senior detectives are also working the strategy. The "uninvited escorts" have the full approval of Abbotsford Mayor George Peary. "We want to keep the light shining on them at all times," he says. Local businesses are urged to consider refusing the Bacons service - a kind of secular shunning that seems appropriate in Abbotsford, the heart of B.C.'s Bible belt.
The strategy is costing an estimated $5,000 to $10,000 a week, plus it is diverting the services of some of the small force's top officers. Rich has been accused of wasting city resources to protect some gangsters. "Is that a side effect of that strategy?" he asks. "I'm sure it certainly is. But the goal is: I do not want an Abbotsford community member to be shot in the middle of this crisis."
Finally last weekend, the crimes swirling around the Bacons yielded arrests rather than frustration. Five people, including two members of the UN gang and an associate, face charges including attempted murder for shooting up a Range Rover Feb. 16, containing an associate of the Bacons. The arrests were linked to a covert, eight-month investigation during which police also intervened to save 15 to 20 others, who "would have been either shot, murdered or kidnapped," the RCMP said in a news release. "This is by no means over," said Gary Bass, deputy RCMP commissioner for B.C. "We will track down the thugs responsible for the violence in our streets, out them, and arrest them."
Whether Abbotsford's challenges and the sad stories of loved ones lost in the crossfire lead to changes is hard to say. Stephen Harper took notes last week, but made no promises. "He's a quiet, reserved man, not given to jumping around the room," says Rich. "I'll just say he was respectful and heard everyone's point. What government does with it is another matter."
What, then, needs to be done? Maclean's canvassed a variety of experts. Among their suggestions:
Choose policy over politics
Harper's proposed mandatory minimum sentences for gang and gun crimes won surprisingly quick support from both the Liberals and the New Democrats, and even conditional support from the Bloc. In fact, Liberal justice critic Dominic LeBlanc says the Tories' "modest but necessary" proposals don't go far enough.
The Tories have talked tough on crime for a couple of years now, but they've let political squabbles or expediency delay or derail legislation. In the fall of 2007, three of their crime bills were set back when Harper prorogued Parliament. They had to be pushed through again when a new session started. The bill to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act tabled last week was first introduced in November 2007, only to die when Harper called an election. The revived bill would impose mandatory prison sentences - at least a two-year term for running a large marijuana grow-op, or for dealing hard drugs like cocaine and heroin near a school.
Another package of mandatory minimums would automatically regard any gang-related murder as first-degree homicide, carrying a penalty of life with no parole for 25 years. It would also impose a minimum four-year sentence for a non-fatal drive-by shooting.
But the notion that stiffer sentences reduce street-level mayhem gets at best mixed reviews. Darryl Plecas of the University of the Fraser Valley is one of the rare few criminologists who says Harper's only mistake was in not proposing harsher minimums than one or two years for trafficking crimes. "I think they should be booted up to 12-year minimums," says Plecas, who blames the judiciary for lax sentencing. There's a low recidivism rate for those who've done hard federal time, he says. "Most people who are sent to a federal prison never show their face there again."
Others argue that if longer prison terms did the trick, the U.S. - with the highest incarceration rate in the developed world - would presumably be seeing faster reductions in crime than Canada. Instead, rates in Canada and the U.S. have been declining at about the same pace since the 1990s. "Put the crime graphs for Canada against the graphs for the U.S.," University of Toronto criminologist Rosemary Gartner says, "and you see exactly the same thing."
Thirty years of research shows crime rates move independent of penalties, says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University. How else to explain why Newfoundland, under the same laws as B.C., has a consistently lower murder rate? "What drives homicides is not the penalty you impose but the culture of the area," he says. "What is significant is enforcement. Change the probability of arrest and conviction," he argues, "or prevent people from becoming involved [in gangs]."
Public fear and political expedience often make for short-term thinking and bad policy, says Michael Chettleburgh, a criminal justice analyst and author of Young Thugs, a exploration of gang culture. "What we really need is to take a deep breath and realize that if you have nothing to do with the business of gangs or of drugs, your chance of random victimization, whether it's Toronto, Montreal, Hobbema or Winnipeg, is actually very, very low," he says. "We still have the opportunity that cities in the United Sates, like south central L.A., don't have - the opportunity to really get on top of the issue if we employ an intelligent, coherent strategy."
Unfetter the police
Gang investigations - with fearful witnesses and a gang code of silence and retribution - are a policing challenge. A federal study shows the average gang-related murder in Canada takes more than six months to investigate compared to about a week for many domestic or other homicides, says police Supt. John Robin, head of the B.C. Lower Mainland's integrated homicide investigation team (IHIT). IHIT puts a minimum of an eight-member team on each murder, in part to document the required high legal standard of Charter and privacy rights. It's unlikely serious crime investigation in any other jurisdiction in the Western world consumes as many resources, he adds. "And that's because of court rulings. That's because of disclosure rulings. That's because of just the complexity of the cases we're addressing."
In Calgary, acting Staff Sgt. Gord Eiriksson, head of the police service's organized crime operations centre, faces similar constraints. Gangsters, their top legal talent paid for with drug money, play the system to glorious advantage, dragging out their pre-trial incarceration where legal precedents give them a two- or even three-for-one credit for time served before conviction. Disclosure requirements are so onerous that the accused essentially gets to look over the shoulders of police. "We educate them as to how we're conducting our investigations," says Eiriksson. "They learn from that and do things to counter that so that we can't use that same investigative technique again."
Reducing the burden of disclosure rules is near the top of the B.C. government's anti-crime agenda. Consider the resources burned in one major B.C. bust. Project E-Paragon was a 14-month joint investigation by the RCMP, Vancouver police and police in the U.S. and Australia into organized crime and international drug trafficking. More than 100 arrests were announced in December 2007, but only 67 of 154 charges police recommended in B.C. have received the necessary Crown approval to go to trial. "In real terms the system is backed up and lack of prosecutors, as well as the urgency of other matters, influence charge approval and prosecution," says Supt. Doug Kiloh, head of the combined special forces enforcement unit in B.C.
The delays are understandable. The case required police to draft 371 documents and warrants for judicial authorization, totalling 8,154 pages and 4,800 hours of officer time. Seventeen reports to Crown counsel were drafted: 3,948 hours of police time, and a further 4,568 hours for bail briefs. Documents disclosing the case to the defence total almost 60,000 pages and 53 hours of videotaped evidence. Thousands more hours of police time will be spent meeting disclosure needs in the months and years ahead as the cases crawl toward trial. "In my view, disclosure law has evolved as a weapon for defence counsel, not an assistance to providing a fair trial," says Kiloh. "It has paralyzed the system."
If you expect witnesses to step forward, and the public to mobilize against gangs, they need better guarantees of safety, says Chettleburgh. "Why not new laws around witness intimidation?" he asks. "Why not beefing our contempt of court laws, or our obstruction of justice charges? The maximum penalty for contempt of court is two years less a day. Why not put more teeth in there?"
Chasing the money is another key strategy. Existing civil forfeiture laws can seize, houses, cars, cash and other proceeds of crime. Too often such tactics are underfunded and under-appreciated. Crime-busting tactics that are having a growing impact on crime rates are the targeting of prolific offenders, the analysis of real-time crime maps, and the strategic analysis of crime trends, says Plecas.
A huge increase in weaponry also needs to be addressed. Smuggled firearms are only part of the problem. Businesses that can legally import guns also have a large number slip out the back door, either through theft or illegal sales, says a recent analysis of firearms movement in B.C. It urges Canada to prevail over the gun lobby and require import markings on guns brought into the country to track and curtail firearms trafficking. One Burnaby company was able to import guns, ostensibly for the movie industry, only to turn around and sell some 2,000 illegally.
Gang members are made, not born, says Peary, the Abbotsford mayor, and a lot of little things can make a difference. He wants to reinstitute uniformed police school liaison officers and foster alternate education programs. Even a hot breakfast program for primary school children can save a child from falling behind, becoming alienated and seeking belonging in gang life, he says. Winnipeg, home to some of the country's hardest street gangs, has launched a multi-pronged series of diversion programs. Among them is SPIN (Sports Programs in Inner-City Neighbourhoods). The program removes such barriers to inner-city sports programs as financing, transportation, coaching and volunteers, says Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz. "We took those away and provided a healthy and positive environment for children in the community we believe would be at risk of joining gangs to feel accepted."
In Toronto, police have a series of outreach programs in at-risk areas and announced the posting of 30 uniformed officers in area high schools. And the department hires, with provincial funding, students from "priority neighbourhoods" for a variety of jobs. Many had never met the police before, at least on good terms, says spokesman Mark Pugash. "We now have people who have worked with us for three months who want to become police officers," he says. In Montreal, Projet Espoir (Project Hope) is spearheaded by Lionel Anglade, a Haitian-born Montreal police officer and boxer who runs a boxing program for kids susceptible to gangs.
Such long-term thinking is all too rare for politicians who rarely look beyond the next election, says Chettleburgh. "We need to be keeping them engaged in pro-social activities because [if] the kid doesn't have a connection to traditional society, whether that's school, sports and recreation or family, he's going to become socialized on the street."
If anything good comes of the mad spiral of gang violence in Vancouver, it's the realization "that it affects us all," says Chettleburgh. "This is not just the gangster community that is dying." All Stephen Harper had to do to appreciate that last Thursday was look to his right, into the face of Eileen Mohan.
Weeks earlier she'd talked to Maclean's about what it is like for her and her husband Sunil to open the door to an empty home, one that used to be filled with music, laughter, running shoes and all the great pieces of their son's life. She seems tired, and ever more frail, and yet she is everywhere these days, at rallies, public forums and at the Prime Minister's side. She runs on faith, determined, as Harper said in another context, not to waste this crisis. There are laws to be changed, and parents to be made accountable, and rights of victims and victimizers to be rebalanced.
She speaks regularly with the homicide team investigating the murder of her son, who died because he stepped into his apartment hallway, apparently on the way to play basketball. Progress, they tell her, is "steady, but slow." She tries to be patient. She knows the challenges they face, and that it will be these men and women - more than new laws or politicians or speeches - who will deliver what measure of justice she can hope for in this life. "When you're a parent who has lost a beautiful son you want to believe in something," she says. "I want to believe in them, because I've lost believing in anything else."
Maclean's March 16, 2009